A good action game, but one that came out about 4 years too late
In short, Vanquish is the Japanese take on the Unreal-powered, gray, cover-based, space marine shooter genre. It is so loaded with today’s overused clichés that it is almost amusing. It also throws some specifically Japanese touches in there, like a marathon opening cut scene, a score summary at the end of each mission, Metal Gear style dialog boxes, and the occasional short skirt with a low camera angle. Despite having so much that you have seen before, however, Vanquish manages to have its own unique feel. It is tough, fast-paced, a little more open, and a little less tactical than your typical cover-based shooter. It also has frequent boss fights, which are usually pretty good.
There is very little that catches your eye when you start up Vanquish. White and gray environments with tons of bloom – yes, you have seen it probably a dozen times before in this generation. You are a guy in a mech-ish nanosuit, and your fellow space marines are hulking guys in heavy armor. Technologically, Vanquish looks decent, and the close-ups on faces during dialog scenes look very good. However, it is aesthetically boring and repetitive. There is very little imagination in the look of the enemies, the environments, or the weapons. The main grunts that you fight, in particular, are skinny red robots with a single eye in the middle of their head – in other words, they are a ripoff of the Geth from Mass Effect (and the name of the trophy that you get for finishing the first act is called “Normandy” – go figure). Also of note is the terrible lack of lip synching in the game’s Metal Gear style dialog boxes. This is the kind of thing that would have been fine ten years ago, but that is a problem that should be solved by now – maybe it’s because it was designed to sync with Japanese?
Vanquish isn’t all bad though. It brings a few elements to the table that don’t sound like much, but make the game more fun than a lot of this genre’s other entries. The first addition is a very cool power slide mechanic, which lets you rocket across the map to get to a cover point or get out of danger. The game is linear, but the areas tend to have more open space than most games of this genre, and this gives you all kinds of tactical options. This is the only game that I have played in recent memory that lets you slide across the map into a group of three enemies, smash one to bits with a melee attack, and then blast the other two before they knew what hit them. Finding good cover is tricky, because the enemies tend to be spread out over a wide area, or in an elevated position. It is for this reason that you will probably find yourself frequently moving from cover to cover, never lingering in one spot for too long. If you do, you will probably get shot from your flank, or killed by a devastating attack from a boss that cover doesn’t protect you against. When combat starts, there is rarely a spot where you can catch your breath.
The speed and intensity of the game are a nice change of pace from other games where you are slow and lumbering. Vanquish can pull this off because it has very tight and responsive controls. The game, as a whole, is designed very well, albeit without being very original. It is also somewhat skill-based, constantly challenging you not to be more careful, but to be quicker and better. The game kills you somewhat often on the ordinary difficulty level, but unlike lots of games, it is better because of it. Usually, when you die, you can identify a mistake that you made, or something that you could have done better. The game gets a lot of little gameplay elements right, like making your attacks feel powerful – I’m tired of shooter games where it feels like my gun shoots Pez candy because I have to empty a whole clip into somebody’s face to kill him.
Vanquish, on the whole, is fun to play. The story, however, adds next to nothing. The game begins with San Francisco getting blown up by some evil Russian guy who also wears a nanosuit. It starts off pretty good, but it never goes anywher0 until the last 20 minutes. In other words, it is 7 hours of pointless shooting in corridors straddled by a couple of short story sequences. The game does very little to establish its fiction and teach you why things happen. The repetitive environments give you absolutely no sense of place, or that you are making progress towards something. Characters get virtually no development, and there is no incentive to shoot everything in front of you, besides the fact that you need to get to the other side of the room. The voice acting is decent, although the two main soldiers in the game are stereotypical, gravelly-voiced meatheads.
Vanquish is one of those games that you have to play in 45-minute spurts. Its unoriginality and its repetitiveness ultimately keep it out of the “greatness” category. The only parts of the game that feel truly inspired are the boss battles, some of which are really good. One of them, in particular, is a tank that charges at you with a couple of massive saw blades out of in front. Some of the bosses tower over you like buildings. Regardless of what they do, it’s always possible to find a glowing spot and shoot it. Getting into position to do that without getting killed is where your skill comes into play.
I have seen the game get criticized for being short, but it is pretty typical action game length nowadays (8 hours or so). It is probably a good thing that it doesn’t last longer, since by that time, you will probably be ready for it to end. With Vanquish, you will find something that could have been Game of the Year material – in 2006. The game is a little late to the party, but you should still check it out.